In the words of Hanna Arendt:
Every generation is invaded by barbarians—we call them “children.”
From where I sit, that resonates. Especially since my three-year-old just ran through the kitchen like a tiny, unclad Gaelic warrior screaming “Captain Underpants!”
And in response to Arendt, Jonah Goldberg adds this:
Society doesn’t civilize the barbarians. Schools don’t either. That’s what families do. Other mediating institutions certainly do important work and they can fix some of the problems that come from an unstable home life, but all you have to do is talk to any teacher or social worker to appreciate that everything starts in the home.
People learn virtue first and most importantly from family, and then from the myriad of institutions [the] family introduces them to: churches, schools, associations, etc.
And I agree also with Goldberg’s claim that our culture is now imperiled, in part, because families have eroded—leaving many to seek a home in what one might call the “fictive kinships” of tribalism, populism, nationalism, and identity politics. (At least that is his list.)
A WAKEUP CALL
For parents, this is yet another reminder of how important our job is.
Frankly, it doesn’t matter how good I am at my “job” if I fail at being a dad. All the lectures, publications, sermons, and promotions in the world won’t raise “Captain Underpants.” Nor will they guide him to love Jesus, tell the truth, and stand up for the vulnerable.
He needs a family.
On such points, Goldberg makes a strong argument that traditional notions like marriage, monogamy, and child-rearing are crucial for a healthy society. Obviously. And one doesn’t need to see many stats on, say, the effect of absent fathers on incarceration rates in order to agree.
DON’T JUST “FOCUS ON THE FAMILY”
One danger in some modern idolizations of the “nuclear family” is that they may coincide with a withdrawal (or enclave) mentality with regard to culture at large. Hence, Christians especially may be led to just “focus on the family” and leave the world to rot. We might call this “The Benedict Option” run amok.
Hence James K. A. Smith has this to say (Awaiting the King):
Curtailing the state’s monopolies in order to devolve power to smaller communities only works if smaller communities actually exist.
That’s not an argument for continuing to prop up the behemoth, but it is the reason why policies that encourage “private” endeavors sound like—and can sometimes be cover for—the pursuit of enclaved special interests that abandon the common good.
If these smaller communities (most notably, the family) do not exist, then all the talk of their importance by folks like Goldberg may sound about as helpful as the 911 operator telling you all the ways you could have prevented the fire that now fully engulfs your home.
Ah yes… sounds like faulty wiring and a lack of smoke alarms. We’ll add you to the statistics!
Which brings me to the church.
REDEEMING FICTIVE KINSHIP
There was, of course, a time in which western civilization was overrun by so-called “barbarians”—and not the three-year-old variety.
Germanic hordes swept over Rome in the 5th century. And in the 8th century, Viking warriors began their raids upon the West. Yet in both cases, the “barbarians” were conquered, not so much by armies, but by a culture and a faith.
They were transformed not by the nuclear family, but by a “fictive kinship”—the family of God.
To be sure, such claims must be qualified. For one, the civilization overrun by these “barbarians” was not always as civilized as one might think. Nor was the church that transformed them anywhere near perfect. (In many instances, it was a hot mess.)
Still, it bears noting that Jesus-movement originated as a “fictive kinship group”–to use a phrase I first heard from N.T. Wright–that sought to relativize the bonds of the (nuclear) family, so that they were made subservient to God’s Kingdom-agenda.
Even Christ’s choosing of twelve (motley) disciples signifies something like this:
“These are my mother and brothers,” says Christ, pointing to his disciples (Mt. 12.49).
“No one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times…” (Mk. 10.29–30).
None of this changes, of course, the importance of the (nuclear) family in shaping a stable society.
But it does mean that Christians must focus on more than just blood-ties if we want to “civilize the barbarians” (ourselves included); or more rightly: If we want to see the kingdom come.
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